52 in 52 / Longs. / Word.

Book Review – Rajaa Alsinea’s Girls of Riyadh

Here’s everything I know about Sex in the City: Sarah Jessica Parker plays Carrie Bradshaw (but she was better in Flight of the Navigator), a woman who writes a relationship advice column and has a bunch of middle-aged friends. Done. I can’t name any of the other characters or general plot-lines. I haven’t seen a full episode or either of the movies.

I’m telling you this because this book keeps getting compared to Sex in the City. I have no idea if they’re the same, but if they are, then let me tell you this:  Sex in the City is a pro grrl power romp through the difficult-to-navigate gender roles of conservative muslim culture, muted by a poor translation.

Girls of Riyadh

Perhaps most importantly, the novel is written in the form of a series of anonymous emails from a mailing list. Let’s ignore for a second what a bad idea that was, since it basically indicates THIS IS A DELETE-ABLE TEXT. The small introductions to the chapters tell the story of telling the story, and at the end of the day, I think that’s the real story here. Word play aside, the modern Muslim woman is often politicized, and when we (westerners) talk about them, we tend to do so in these sort of tag-line ways (i.e., is it OK for women to wear a hijab in her Driver’s license ID photo?) which ignore the real complexity of personhood.

The novel follows four women in their late teens and early twenties. The girls live in Riyadh, but leave and come back for a variety of reasons. They also get married happily and unhappily. I bring up these two things because they are essentially what the novel is about. The novel seems to cue up each relationship status and cultural surrounding combination on cue – it tells us about single women in Saudi Arabia, and divorced Saudi women living in London, and unhappily engaged women living in Riyadh and so on. It’s a novel about falling in love:

Only a few days after the breakup Sadeem began to crave Firas with an intensity that surpassed mere yearning or longing. For years Firas had been the air that she breathed, and without him she truly felt as if she were suffocating, deprived of oxygen. He was her saint.

Which brings me to an interesting aspect of this novel – the hotly contested and pretty dumpy translation. The novel was originally published in arabic, and the original translator was stopped half-way through the project. She has now published a series of articles about how silly and campy the novel became with the new translation (see “the air that she breathed” and “deprived of oxygen” above). I’m inclined to think she’s right – the novel’s language is too light considering all the infidelity, physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, oppression, fear and heartbreak these girls have to live through.

The novel reads like a chic flick with a dark underbelly, and by the end of the book, you begin to realize that it’s really all about the underbelly. Sadeem, Gamrah, Lamees, Mashael, and Firas all end up OK, but Riyadh is still Riyadh. It’s a place where love cannot seem to exist or survive in broad daylight, but where it’s forced to move through buried phone lines and secretive whispers.

I give it three arranged marriages.

We’re working on a scale of 1-4 here. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that before…

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